Storylines that emerged from TUF finale
Welcome to the shark tank, Jonathan Brookins.
With the WEC merger looming, the UFC's 155-pound division has become even more dangerous. With his gutsy decision win over Michael Johnson at "The Ultimate Fighter 12" finale on Saturday, season winner Jonathan Brookins signaled that he's yet another talented lightweight to watch in a ridiculously deep talent pool.
After a tough first round in which Johnson burst ahead with strikes, Brookins showed a solid beard and tactical smarts. Changing up his approach in the second and third frames, Brookins dominated, using good conditioning and technical smarts to win a fast-paced battle. That kind of awareness is virtually mandatory at lightweight, where most top-level bouts force competitors to dig deep and be effective over the distance. Conditioning is key for these guys, and if past TUF winners are any indication, Brookins will have a lot of room and time to progress.
Maybe not as much as previous winners, though.
The UFC's 155-pound division has become so deep that there are virtually no easy fights to crack the top 15, much less the top 10. Any lightweight who lands a title shot -- after the Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard/Ben Henderson-Anthony Pettis mini-tournament is through, that is -- will need a string of big wins under his belt. Jockeying for position will be a serious list of killers. Brookins has his work cut out for him, but he is a very talented fighter, and showed as much in his win over Johnson.
In what could be a harbinger of an exciting MMA career, Brookins put up a decent effort in a third-round loss to 145-pound kingpin Jose Aldo in November 2008. Assuming Brookins moves up the ranks -- and there are no givens with the hill he's going to have to climb -- it will only further illustrate how amazing Aldo is. It may also make fans wonder what the dynamic Brazilian might do if he were to rise to 155.
Garcia-Phan reopens scoring wound
While controversial judging in MMA is a recurring issue, the scorecards in Nam Phan and Leonard Garcia's featherweight bout were so different, you could have driven a truck through the gap.
With two judges scoring the bout 29-28 for Garcia, the third scored it 30-27 for Phan. While it was a close fight, there was no clear reason for giving Phan the first round, when Garcia out-landed him 3-1 and dictated most of the action. The second round was clearly Phan's, and the third was pretty much a pick 'em.
"It's ruining MMA," said announcer Joe Rogan in his discussion of the problem on the live Spike TV telecast. Rogan added that the Nevada State Athletic Commission employs a few good judges, but still needs to "clean house." The big problem is that Nevada's history as a stalwart for boxing and its assorted regulatory mechanisms has not translated into effective MMA judging. The refereeing is solid, as are the other elements required to run shows which are safe, well-administered and professional. However, the judges' criteria are clearly murky, and that only creates more problems.
While I don't think it was the controversial jobbing that the crowd thought it was, the divergent nature of the scorecards -- in a state like Nevada, no less -- only serves as further indication that MMA judges need to be looking for and scoring on the same uniform criteria.
Striking rules need revising
Like the problems with judging, Saturday's TUF 12 finale further highlighted problematic issues of how banned strikes interrupt the ebb and flow of MMA bouts. Igor Pokrajac lost a point for kneeing Stephan Bonnar to the head -- even though Pokrajac was on the bottom and being dominated -- and later received a warning for kicking Bonnar to the face, a strike which Pokrajac delivered from his back as Bonnar hovered above. Later, Bonnar lost a point at the bout's close, delivering punches to the back of Igor's head as Pokrajac turned into him. The bout was rife with examples of why certain banned strikes should be allowed or, at least, have the rules surrounding them clarified.
This is in no way an attempt to criticize the referee for the bout, Steve Mazzagatti. Like all refs, Mazzagatti was simply there to enforce the rules as they currently stand. State athletic commissions need to implement this change, because the sport is impacted by these rules and fighters are incentivized to work the system accordingly.
The trouble with deciding which strikes to make legal in MMA involves allowing the sport to maintain its ebb and flow, while reining in the kind of high-octane violence that hinders MMA's shift toward mainstream legitimacy. A decade ago, when the sport was on the verge of extinction, necessary compromises were made. Soccer kicks to the head of downed opponents were banned, as were knees to the head, and those were good compromises. Both acts are too brutal and unsporting to help MMA in any way.
However, the three examples in the Bonnar-Pokrajac fight illustrate holes in the system. If a downed fighter like Pokrajac could legally deliver a kick or knee to the head, it would be far less dangerous than his standing opponent doing so. It would also serve to open up the match without posing undue risk. Stalemated grappling positions would become less common; therefore, letting grounded fighters strike with whatever tools they have available could only help the sport.
Bonnar's being docked a point for his illegal strikes illustrates another problem: Fighters who suffer elbow strikes to the back of the head often do so because they turn into them. This is a natural reaction, but it's essentially a way of gaming the system, much like when a fighter assumes a three-point position in order to stop an opponent from kneeing or kicking on the ground. If, like Bonnar, a fighter is in the midst of delivering legal elbows, his opponent shouldn't be able to turn his head to elicit a point deduction.
If Bonnar had shamelessly delivered the elbows while Pokrajac never left the "legal" portion of his head available, it would be another matter entirely. Meanwhile, Pokrajac deserved the chance to kick, knee and deliver whatever he could with Bonnar on top of him.
There's no perfect solution to this problem. While I don't relish the idea of, say, a Brock Lesnar delivering knees from side control, or Wanderlei Silva revamping his soccer kick routine, the system could use some tweaking. The deductions in the Bonnar-Pokrajac bout were largely academic, thankfully, but that's not going to last until these issues are readily addressed.
With better stand-up, McKenzie could be dangerous
There's a certain appeal to fighters with one-trick arsenals, and that's the excitement over whether or not they can apply their signature move.
Cody McKenzie couldn't have gotten off to a better start, scoring yet another guillotine choke submission on Saturday, this time over Aaron Wilkinson. McKenzie -- who's now 12-0 in professional bouts, with 10 straight wins via guillotine -- has put together an incredible streak.
What makes McKenzie even more likable is the fact that he looks, talks, and carries himself like the guy next door, rather than the stereotypical buff fighter guy. He even rocks long hair, a beard and chest hair -- throwback motifs in an era when many fighters have become downright vain about their appearances.
If McKenzie can develop an effective stand-up game -- say, something on the level of a good striker who could hold his own with most lightweights -- he'll be incredibly tough to deal with. With his amazing ability to find guillotine setups from virtually any position, opponents will definitely think twice about taking him down. In his loss to Pham, it was obvious that McKenzie's stand-up had a long way to go, and he still needs to get acclimated to taking and giving big shots. Still, with the quantum leaps which many TUF contestants have made after their runs on the reality show, it's certainly possible that McKenzie could get a lot better. It would be nice not to have to worry about takedowns, being able to stand while carrying an unprecedented reputation for a virtually unstoppable submission on the ground.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.
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